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What’s the Alternative to High-Stakes Testing?

2013 April 5
by Eric Horowitz

For the moment, the Atlanta cheating scandal seems to have recharged the anti-testing movement. The trouble is that while many critiques of high-stakes testing make valid points, there’s been a disappointing lack of talk about concrete alternatives.

When it comes to school accountability, there are essentially three options:

1. Hold schools accountable through high stakes testing. This is the status quo, and in the last week the voices questioning it have grown louder.

2. Hold schools accountable through some other objective means. Larry Ferlazzo has a good rundown of some alternative ways to assess student learning. Many fall under the heading of “performance-based assessment,” and they basically involve evaluating students on essays, projects, assignments, or portfolios they’ve accumulated over the course of the year.

3. We shouldn’t try to hold schools accountable through any federal or state-level assessment regulations. This view gives schools the opportunity to figure things out on their own, and it leaves parents and local officials in charge of making sure their school is up to snuff.

The current problem is that there’s plenty of talk about why option #1 is bad, but nobody is making a strong case for option #3 or a specific instance of option #2. It’s essentially the GOP’s “Repeal and Replace, (But Not Actually Replace)” strategy on on healthcare, and it’s also reminiscent of the GOP’s vacuous opposition to government spending. The reason we’re left with a steady whine over Obamacare and deficits but not real alternatives is that the alternatives — leaving people uninsured or cutting Social Security — are even more unpopular than the policies they’re supposed to be replacing.

The anti-testing movement faces a similar predicament. Granted, there are a number of reasons a comprehensive replacement for high-stakes testing has not emerged. There is a lack of lack of unity among the opposition, and no alternatives have been tried on a scale that would be required of a true high-stakes testing replacement. But I think the big reason there’s little talk of alternatives is that when molded into serious policy proposals these assessments would likely prove to be prohibitively expensive, excessively subjective, comically lenient, or too unrelated to the college admissions process, and therefore they would end up being quite unpopular.

Leaving it up to parents or principals would also be unpopular. In a world where parents want some assurance their kids will have the knowledge and SAT scores they need to go to college, an accountability system with no teeth probably won’t garner a lot of public support at the state or national level.

I used the words “likely and “probably” because we don’t know how people will react to these proposals, and the reason we don’t know is that the anti-testing movement has failed to unite behind an alternative. I think this is a strategic move based on the fact that the alternatives are unpopular, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. In fact, the existence of a concrete alternative to high-stakes testing with real support behind it would be a boon to the debate about how to improve our schools. But it has to be more than an op-ed or a policy brief about a system used in a handful of schools. A major player (e.g. AFT) has to put forth a comprehensive design that can be taken to scale. It should have accurate descriptions of what it will cost, who needs to be hired, and how teachers will be trained. (I find it odd that those most vocal about the mess of Common Core implementation don’t seem all that concerned with the specifics of implementing a complex system of assessment to serve as an alternative to high-stakes testing.)

At the moment, a workable alternative to high-stakes testing remains a fantasy. Until the anti-testing movement unites around an alternative or officially denounces assessment-based accountability, high-stakes testing will continue to monopolize assessment policy.

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